Culture Shift, Technology Lead to Staff Cuts

, The Legal Intelligencer


Jeff Coburn

Originally Published September 24, 2013

In the wake of recent support-staff reductions at Duane Morris, K&L Gates and other large firms, consultants and recruiters said more of these types of cuts are expected as firms seek to increase profits and shifts in technology gradually phase out the need for traditional clerical functions.

"I'm surprised that anybody's surprised," Thomas S. Clay, a principal with Altman Weil, said Friday, adding, "You're going to continue to see it as firms look in a slow-growth or no-growth economy" to save money.

Nonlawyer staff is often the first cost firms look at when considering reductions, according to Clay.

Clay said nonlawyer staffing costs account for on average around 40 percent of most large firms' expenses.

"By far and away the biggest savings area is people," Clay said.

The second largest expense for firms, Clay added, is space. So for those firms that are not locked into long-term leases in huge offices, reducing the number of bodies could eventually translate to savings on that front as well.

As Glenn D. Blumenfeld of Tactix Real Estate Advisors in Philadelphia told The Legal for its "Thinking Small" series on firms revamping their office spaces: Many firms' offices today are "a sea of empty secretarial stations that are really spaces to store empty filing boxes."

Add to that the fact that technological advances have rendered many of the traditional duties of law firm support staff nearly obsolete and it's little wonder why firms might look to reduce that expense, according to Clay.

"I was giving a speech about the need to move further and further toward fewer and fewer support staff and one attorney said, 'Yes, but who's going to do my filing?' Well, nobody," Clay said. "What lawyers have gotten used to are a lot of trappings."

Boston-based legal consultant Jeff Coburn agreed, saying the leverage ratio of lawyers to support staff at large firms that was at one time roughly 1-to-1 has changed over the years so that, in many instances, two, three or even four attorneys might share a single secretary.

What's being said

  • UT83

    Shame on Jeff Coburn for referring to "the ratio of professionals to nonprofesionals." Referring to support staff as nonprofessionals was completely offensive. I have been a legal secretary for 25 years and I can assure you I am a professional in every sense of the word. I have worked with attorneys ranging from the most senior to fresh out of law school and the ones that are the most productive are those that utilize the experience we "nonprofessionals" have to offer.

  • Jay Foonberg

    Perhaps the dumping of associates and partners who don't produce enough profits is in part a result of treating law as a business rather than a profession.
    For "better or worse, through good times and bad is now": "as long as I can make an immediate dollar from you."
    I am increasingly seeing senior lawyers who are a step away from being bag ladies and bag men. The pressure on senior lawyers to grind out work as they live longer and work longer is also causing a serious reduction in the job opportunities for young lawyers.

    For 50 years I have been preaching that the lawyer with a following of loyal clients need never fear being dumped by those who want the lawyers clients and fees.

    We as a profession are simply paying the price of the greed of those who look upon the practice of law as only a way to make money . In many cases those who treated law as only a business are simply becoming the victims of their own greed.

    Just MHO
    Jay Foonberg

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